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Leveraging Social Networks for Student Engagement: Scaling a Successful Hillel Pilot Program By Heather McLeod Grand and Lindsay Bellows / November 2012 / Leave a comment

Leveraging Social Networks for Student Engagement: Monitor Institute Case Study of Hillel

In 2008, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, with generous support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, began testing an innovative program that leveraged peer networks and relationships to help Hillel achieve its goal of “doubling the number of Jewish students who are involved in Jewish life and who have meaningful Jewish experiences.” Piloted at 10 colleges, Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educators and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (SJE/CEI) recruited and trained student interns to engage their campus peers in Jewish conversation and activities; it also featured “Jewish educators” whose role was to help stimulate deeper learning and growth among students interested in exploring their Judaism.

The idea of leveraging social networks to increase social impact is not new, but it has received heightened focus in the last few years. Networks of individuals can be mobilized to produce specific outcomes, exchange information, facilitate learning and growth, share resources and services, and align action toward a common goal, among other things. Indeed, it was the mobilizing potential of networks that prompted the Jim Joseph Foundation to provide nearly $11 million of support for the pilot over five years — the largest single investment ever made to impact Jewish student life. (The program began in 2008 and runs through the end of 2012.)

Fortunately for its investors, the Hillel SJE/CEI pilot program has proved extremely successful in its first four years; by the end of 2012, an estimated 22,000 Jewish students will have been newly engaged on 10 pilot campuses through the program. A two-year external evaluation found that increased student interaction with the program’s interns and educators was positively correlated with their learning and growth. Consequently, Hillel’s Schusterman International Center (SIC) — the “hub” of the federated Hillel network — has now decided to scale this program to many more campuses beginning in 2013. In preparation, SIC spent the last year stepping back, taking stock of the current program, assessing lessons learned, and planning for adaptation and scale.

Below we summarize the lessons learned from the first four years of the SJE/CEI pilot program, as well as additional learning surfaced during the “planning for scale” project. Many of these lessons are relevant to any group — nonprofit or funder — seeking to scale its impact by leveraging social networks:

  1. Networks can generate multiple layers of impact in a human system. The SJE/CEI pilot program had positive outcomes at many levels: on participants (engaged students); on network leaders (interns); on Jewish educators; on the campus Hillel culture and approach to student learning; on participating Hillel directors; on Hillel’s SIC as the hub; and, on the overall national network of Hillels.
  2. Optimizing networks can require making tradeoffs. Because networks have many kinds of impact, they can be optimized for different goals. Funders and grantees should be clear about what they want to achieve, then optimize the network for those outcomes while helping participants manage various tensions, such as balancing breadth and depth of reach.
  3. Design for scale from the outset. The SJE/CEI pilot was designed to minimize risk and maximize quality; for example, the Jim Joseph Foundation and Hillel invested significantly in hiring Jewish educators — a costly input. But scaling the program without reducing these costs would not be feasible. Hillel was thus challenged to find ways to address this new hurdle without diminishing the impact of its program.
  4. Manage the tension between standardization and customization. One of the challenges of any distributed network of organizations is that program design must be standardized enough to create similar quality of outcomes across affiliates, while also being flexible enough to fit the local context.
  5. Build in measurement and evaluation. It’s important for any program scaling to multiple sites to establish shared metrics that align with the program’s goals and then evaluate progress. Hillel’s SIC created software for tracking “engagement” and paid for a third-party evaluation, but could have done more to create a common data baseline from the outset.
  6. Learn and share together. In order to maximize learning across campuses, Hillel’s SIC established “communities of practice” (CoPs) for each of the pilot program’s participant cohorts: interns, supervisors, Jewish educators, and directors. Every single group reported that these CoPs contributed greatly to their own learning, growth, and development.
  7. Over-communicate your progress. Some Hillel affiliates that were not part of the pilot program noted that the lessons learned weren’t being shared more broadly, and as  a result, they were unable to benefit from the program’s learnings. In hindsight, Hillel’s SIC and the Jim Joseph Foundation could have used some of their seed funding to create a strategy for communicating the pilot program’s progress and findings more broadly.

The Jim Joseph Foundation and Hillel’s Schusterman International Center took a risk with their initial peer-engagement pilot program — a risk that has paid off significantly. Their emerging approach to leveraging networks as a vehicle for social change was so new that there were very few roadmaps for such work five years ago; even today, the roadmaps are few and far between. As this area of study continues to emerge, our hope is that our case study will both contribute to the research base and inspire other funders and nonprofits to try similar network-based approaches to constituent engagement as a way of magnifying their social impact. You can download the full case study from the Jim Joseph Foundation website.

You might also be interested in reading our other reports and case studies on the use of networks for social change: Catalyzing Networks for Social Change, Connected Citizens, and Transformer: A Case Study of the RE-AMP Energy Network.

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